Inside the two-toned creepiness of The Shrouded Isle
The Shrouded Isle is a “cult village management simulator.” That’s the tagline for the game on the website. You manage a village of cultists. Imagine a visual novel about ancient gods with a side familial relationship management in a pseudo-Russian setting, and you’ve come close to describing it in full. But if there’s one thing that stands out, one thing that goes above and beyond, it’s the art.
The game itself is relatively straightforward: you determine which families do what for a given period of time based on individual attributes of family members -- some of which are hidden, and some of which are revealed. At the end of every season, one villager must be sacrificed. The idea is to cull heretics while maintaining good relations which each family, which is easier said than done.
The art style for Shrouded Isle is distinct. Yellow and black combine to give the whole palette a sickly green tinge. While playing, I couldn't decide whether the black was being scraped away to reveal the yellow, or if the yellow was being added on top.
The Shrouded Isle isn’t actually by Kitfox Games; Kitfox is essentially publishing a polished game jam prototype. The original game, The Sacrifice, was the product of Ludum Dare 33 and its theme “You Are The Monster” with code by Jongwoo Kim, art by Erica June Lahaie, words by Aurelien Folie, and sound by François-Xavier Bilodeau.
“[Jongwoo Kim and] I had worked on multiple game jams together in the past and knew that our weakness was always committing too heavily into polish and detail,” Lahaie said when I asked her about the distinct choices, “so before we had even started brainstorming I had told myself I was going to stick to two colors only.”
“I had assumed this would naturally lead us in some Game Boy-inspired vision or something,” Lahaie added. “We started brainstorming and the idea of this cult simulator came up; the ideas in my head quickly turned into something more grim and foreboding.”
When they began working on the jam version of the game, she didn’t really know what colors to use. What she did know, however, was that she’d liked a practice painting she’d completed not long before -- so she started sketching things out based on that.
“With the concept of the game and the really stark contrast in colors, the overall style just naturally shifted into this grungy, sketchy two-tone look,” Lahaie said. It’s a little more refined now, but that’s essentially what’s present in the final game. “I kept everything loose and grimey because I wanted to draw as much as I could and as fast I could.”
In addition to the grimy style of the overall game, each family member the player oversees has a creepy little portrait. Imagine finding a whole room full of moldy paintings in a derelict area of BioShock, and you’ve got the idea. Each one has a slightly obscured face, which only adds to the otherness of it all.
“I liked how ominous it looked!” Lahaie said of the portraits. She didn’t want to spend the time drawing eyes or features that would make for truly defined caricatures, so instead she simply hid the eyes instead. “Our brains are trained to look into another person's eyes first and foremost, so without that, you have no real way of connecting with them. It makes them creepy, it makes them anonymous, and for the purposes of the game jam, it made them easy to reuse randomly because they never really looked like a specific person.”
A lot of Kim’s and Lahaie’s original game jam design remains in the released version, but having Kitfox as a publisher means the team can go back and add the ideas they’d left out for time -- pushing it further towards what they had originally envisioned anyway. According to Lahaie, it’s been a refreshing wave of positive reaction ever since.
“The more fleshed out we made the full game, the more people we showed it to, and the more that response just grew and grew,” she said. “It's... I'm at a loss for words honestly, it's just super, super cool and exciting, and it makes me really happy.”
For the Kitfox version, Lahaie redrew a lot of assets with more detail to accommodate a widescreen ratio suitable for wide release, but otherwise it’s very similar to the game’s first incarnation. After all, if it ain’t broke. Considering that The Shrouded Isle looked like a creepy scratch painting with a family-based Lovecraftian Princess Maker at it’s core… It certainly seems like they made the right call.